Brandeis Hillel states its political neutrality
Citing a wish to remain apolitical, Brandeis Hillel has decided not to release a statement against Hillel International’s endorsement of Kenneth Marcus, President Donald Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education.
Brandeis Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Seth Winberg told the Justice that the campus organization is looking into alternative ways to support students and maintain an inclusive community.
In early February, students circulated a petition calling on Brandeis Hillel to speak out against its parent organization’s endorsement of Marcus. The nominee has been a vocal opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to cut off international support for Israel. However, Marcus has also voiced criticism of Obama-era Title IX guidelines intended to protect survivors of sexual assault.
The core organizers behind the petition met with Winberg on March 9, at which time he informed them that Brandeis Hillel would not be releasing a statement on Marcus.
In a letter circulated on social media last week in response to that meeting, the petitioners wrote that they “continue to affirm that until Brandeis Hillel explicitly and publicly speaks out against Hillel International’s endorsement of Kenneth Marcus, Hillel cannot claim to be an ally for students who have experienced sexual violence.”
Yet Winberg disagreed with the students’ belief that, in not publicly denouncing Marcus’ endorsement, Brandeis Hillel was failing its community members. Defending the organization’s silence, Winberg questioned the notion that public statements are necessarily the most effective way to show support for sexual assault survivors.
Because Hillel is an educational organization that exists to build community, publicly made political statements detract from its core purpose, he explained in a March 11 email to the organizers, a copy of which he provided to the Justice.
“Monolithic statements do not bring people together. By staying above the fray of politics, we protect an overarching value of inclusion and maintain a maximally welcoming community,” he wrote.
Winberg went on to express his belief that speaking out against Marcus would “compromise [his] professional integrity” as a spiritual and educational leader.
“Anyone should feel comfortable approaching a rabbi for mentorship and spiritual guidance regardless of political views, and I believe that is compromised if a rabbi’s personal views are expressed in a professional context,” Winberg wrote.
In his interview with the Justice, Winberg said that he has recommended that Hillel International follow a similar apolitical policy.
“I’ve spoken to the CEO of Hillel International about it, and I’ve offered to students to speak with Hillel International about it,” he explained. “I have respectfully, just as one of many Hillel directors, suggested that Hillel International adopt Brandeis Hillel’s approach to these issues, which is to not make public political statements, because I think that it doesn’t help Hillel achieve its mission.”
In his email to the organizers, Winberg suggested several ways that Hillel could foster a safe and welcoming community without taking a political stance. Specifically, he mentioned possible educational programming focusing on sexual assault prevention and response, as well as customized bystander trainings for specific Jewish communities on campus.
Additionally, he noted, Hillel staff are already trained on sexual assault and harassment, including Title IX education, victim support and bystander intervention.
However, Leah Susman ’18, one of the core student organizers, told the Justice in a Feb. 11 interview that “Brandeis students have already started to feel uncomfortable engaging with Hillel at Brandeis.”
“I think it has already affected the relationship and sense of trust that students feel for Brandeis Hillel, and I really don’t think that students are going to be able to feel as comfortable as they once were going into Brandeis Hillel,” she said.
In their open letter, the student protesters asserted that, in order to effectively raise awareness and support for sexual assault survivors, Brandeis Hillel must first release a statement of support. “Brandeis Hillel must take this first step to regain the trust of student survivors and related campus organizations before they can seriously engage in raising awareness around sexual violence,” they wrote. The core organizers declined to give comment for this article.
As another potential remedy, Winberg also raised the possibility of organizing a forum for students to speak directly to Hillel International about the Kenneth Marcus endorsement, or inviting Hillel International representatives to campus to meet with concerned students. He welcomed collaboration from the core student organizers in pursuing this programming.
“It is your prerogative to make a political statement a precondition of collaboration and partnership — though I hope you will reconsider because there is a lot of good work to do together,” Winberg wrote in his email to petitioners.
He added in his interview with the Justice that he hopes to see more collaboration with students in the future.
“I think that there is so much more that Hillel can do in partnership with students and other organizations on campus to raise awareness, to help people look out for each other and make campus safer,” he said. “And we’re absolutely committed to doing that and prepared to do it, and we hope students will see us as a trusted ally and work with us.”